Planning for the unplannable: developing marketing plans in a post-pandemic world

Planning for the unplannable: developing marketing plans in a post-pandemic world


By Cat Davis, Group Marketing Director, MISSION Group and krow Group

It’s that time of year again where agencies and clients’ attention turns to developing marketing plans for 2021 and a time at which the critical role of the planning and strategy teams within agencies becomes even more apparent. But this year it’s fair to say things are a little different.

With all the unexpected challenges that society and the marketing industry has faced in 2020 and the huge uncertainty that still lies ahead, insightful planning that is built around a deep understanding of changing customer attitudes, behaviours and concerns is more fundamental than ever. But how can planners approach planning for the unplannable?

I spoke to MISSION Agency leaders about whether and how the role of planning has shifted in the light of the pandemic, and their thoughts on the future of planning within marketing agencies and brands.

Sam Bettis, Social Media Director, krow

As we look forward into 2021, nothing looks clear. Coronavirus is still around, uncertainty is high – decision makers are facing the big question of what on earth we do to see growth or survival next year. Uncertainty increases the risk associated with a fixed longer-term strategy, which welcomes a shift in the way planners may need to work – a more live approach is what’s needed.

Live planning would ask us to listen more, at an ongoing level – understanding the constant changes in the way people are feeling and behaving and how this effects your product, brand or sector. This calls for digital tools such as search insights, web analytics and digital listening to be monitored more regularly than ever and for us to be ready to react. It invites planners to learn from their counterparts in social media teams about always on, agile, ever evolving strategies that evolve at a rapid rate.

Live planning doesn’t mean no planning as we enter the new year, there is still a huge need to develop the bigger picture, however it just encourages more agility and openness to learn from the world around us – something I think is very welcome.

Anna Donaghey, Strategy Director, Bray Leino

Arguably the role of Planning hasn’t fundamentally shifted, but the role it can play in crisis management and supporting Client / brand agility has come to the fore. What the pandemic has brought about is a dramatic shift in the ‘focus’ of planning over the last 6-7 months.

Short-termism was already a prevailing trend with many Clients, but boy has the pandemic accelerated this to the extent that ‘immediate-termism’ was brought into sharp focus. Overnight, Strategists had to develop a Covid-specific perspective on all things related to the new consumer mindset, shopping behaviours, brand resilience, the viability of current strategies, the redirection of budget and the relevant KPIs…and then come up with response for which there was no ‘previous’.

Without a well-trodden model or framework to refer to, these responses had to be developed, to a large degree, instinctively and without process. However, strategists have always needed to think both short-term and long-term, so that in itself is nothing new.

It’s likely that in the months to come the emphasis will gradually shift back to longer term planning because the pandemic has also caused brand owners to consider their brand’s meaning and the role they play in people’s lives more than ever. Brands that have managed to connect with their audience in a more meaningful way have not just managed to survive the short term but have created a legacy to build future strategies upon. If anything, the pandemic should now prompt us to look at longer timescales and more distant planning horizons.

Eliot Sykes, Head of Customer Experience, Ethology

We’re used to change at Ethology and we actively embrace and encourage it as it can provide stimulus to do things better or provide new and differentiated ways to meet and exceed customer expectations.  Change is good but…

The pace of change and the number of times things change in recent times has been at breakneck speed and difficult to keep up with, let alone navigate. We see this across our Agency partners and Clients alike, it’s a white-knuckle ride that’s not looking to abate any time soon.

What our Clients have valued most through this turbulence is the ability to understand customer needs and expectations. We saw this from the outset of the pandemic in South East Asia whilst working with Bray Leino Splash – instead of being on the ground with them, how could we conduct research remotely from a different time zone with people who don’t speak English fluently? We employed new technology that allowed multiple groups to conduct qual studies as well as using new tools to collaborate and share ideas and information – tools and tech that we almost now take for granted and second nature (as long as the wifi works!).

Speed of understanding customers’ changing needs has also been a key demand. With our parent Agency krow, we employed technology to gather agile qual and quant to inform the planning process. We utilised video-based research with machine learning, digital listening and market intelligence tools to uncover unique insights and provide a robust understanding of audiences in a matter of hours which serve as the basis for any good planning process.

Sarah Firth, Creative Director, Speed Communications

I have been thinking recently about why the government is so reluctant to acknowledge when they have made a U-turn in advice and restrictions, as has been the case with its guidance on Covid-19.  U-turns should only be seen in a positive light because it means you are reacting to the latest data and changing your approach accordingly.

The same is true for planning in the comms industry.  The word is after all ‘planning’, a verb that is in motion and active and it is absolutely vital that we not only keep it at the heart of comms right now, but a constant activity.  Simply because consumer behaviour, much like the government’s approach to managing the virus, is in a constant state of flux.  Without planning it would be hard to dictate the future even as far as this Christmas, let alone 2021 and beyond.  For instance, at the beginning of lockdown, health and hygiene were the two biggest factors concerning consumers and their attitude towards brands.  Sustainability practically went out of the window as an issue, but now the pendulum has shifted back again and we are more aware than ever about the importance of living more sustainable lives, as we equate a healthy planet with a healthy population.  We saw a whole new audience emerge who had never shopped online suddenly embracing ecommerce and people who rarely used apps being happy to order and pay for an entire meal through one.

And in fact it’s these last three trends that we can build on in 2021 – we will want to be clean and green and will look to brands to help us do that, we will not lose our appetite for online shopping and things being brought to our door and apps and contactless payment will only increase in months to come. 

You can plan on that.